The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East

Of the origins of monotheistic religion and ethics.

Jerusalem: The Temple Mount from the time of the Second Temple

When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.

I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.

Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.

Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.

It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.

Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.

If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.

Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.

The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.

Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.

Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.

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Sunday Worship is Evidence for the Resurrection

The sudden change from Saturday observance to Sunday observance in the First Century is evidence of a momentous occurrence that lead to the change.


Many of the things we do have become so traditional and commonplace that we don’t think about when they started and why. One of those things is the practice of Christians gathering on Sundays for “worship” or “church”. After all, Christians have been gathering on Sundays for almost 2000 years!

But why? It isn’t that difficult to figure out from a thematic, theological position, but what is the history? And why is that important?

We are approaching another Easter so the topic of the resurrection is top of mind this time of year. Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is the answer to the questions I have posed.

Christians gather on Sundays because Sunday was the day of the resurrection according to the Gospel accounts (all four of them). While we take the Sunday gatherings for granted (unless you are a Seventh Day Adventist), the change from Saturday gatherings to Sunday gatherings has historical significance that supports the resurrection as an historical fact.

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Who Was Jesus?


Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.

This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.

A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.

The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.

My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.

I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.

As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.

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Questions of Greatness and Goodness

Jesus wrote no books, created no great art, built no monuments and spent only three years as a public figure two millennia ago.


“The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he help men think about new ideas with a vigor that persisted after he was gone?’” H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the great English writer considered “the father of science fiction”, was a forward thinker, believing in the progression of man in the vein of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. He was no friend of orthodox Christianity, nor of any religion. (See Wikipedia) “None of his contemporaries did more to encourage revolt against Christian tenets and accepted codes of behaviour, especially as regards sex….” (See Britannica).

It’s ironic I suppose, then, that I am thinking about Jesus as I read his words.

Wells expressed a hope in his writing “that human society would evolve into higher forms”. He believed from early on in the “doctrine of social progress”. (See Britannica) World War I impacted the idealistic hopes of youth, but Wells continued to believe that humankind could progress through knowledge and education.

I wonder what Wells would say today? How much have we progressed? Would his waning optimism have shriveled altogether if he had lived long enough? His last written work, Mind at the End of its Tether, written at the outbreak of World War II, suggests some further erosion in the hope of his youth, painting a very bleak picture of the future of mankind in which nature itself rebels against the evils of men.

Though H.G. Wells visited with both Lenin and Stalin, he probably didn’t know all the details of the atrocities that Stalin (particularly ) committed. A grim estimate of people killed at Stalin’s direction is 40 million! (See ibtimes) What would Wells have thought about the progression of mankind if he knew the truth? What if he knew of all the genocides that occurred and would occur in the 20th and 21st centuries alone? (See The worst genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries)

Should H.G. Wells’ test of greatness by changed to include goodness?

An atheist friend of mine challenged me to prove to him that the world is a better place with religion (and Christianity in particular). I don’t recall exactly how I responded to him, but I have thought about his challenge since then.

We can’t deny that bad things have been done by people in the name of religion, including Christianity. I would not deny it. But what of the good?

H.G. Wells poses a question about greatness. My friend poses a question about goodness.

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Reading the Writing on the Cave Wall

 

Genevieve Von Petzinger speaks at TED Fellows Retreat 2015, August 26-30, 2015, Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Genevieve von Petzinger, a paleoanthropologist, has a TED talk that is garnering some attention. She speaks on her findings from the exploration of art and geometric signs in caves around Europe. Most people have long known about the cave art, but the geometric signs were largely ignored until von Petzinger decided to focus on them and catalogue them.

Maybe the fascination with the art distracted people from the significance of the geometric signs and contributed to the under reporting of them. Von Petzinger is the first person to document and create a database of those geometric signs. She reports that she found previously undocumented geometric signs in 70% of the caves she surveyed.

Her TED talk focused on a stunning discovery she made. She observed that a total of 32 different geometric signs can be found in all the caves she visited. Only 32 different geometric signs were evidenced over a 30,000-year period on the entire continent of Europe! If they were random doodles or decorations, she says, we would expect to see much more variation, but that isn’t what she found.

Instead, she discovered that the signs were repeated from location to location. About 60% of the signs were used throughout the entire 30,000-year time span.

Some signs appeared early and ceased to be used, and other signs appeared later. Some signs appeared in wide geographic distribution, while other signs appeared in more concentrated geographic areas. But most of the signs were found throughout the continent and throughout the 30,000-year span.

Interestingly, the cave art in Europe bears some resemblance to the cave art as far away as Indonesia and Australia. Many of the same signs appear in far flung places, especially in the 30,000-40,000 year range. Genevieve von Petzinger says that these findings indicate an increasing likelihood that “this invention traces back to a common point of origin in Africa”, but “that is a subject for a future talk”, says von Petzinger.

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Christianity and Society’s Ills

The history of the people of God. is that they are always tending away from Him in their hearts, especially at the level of power. But there is always a remnant.

Heroes Square Budapest Hungary

A social media friend recently responded to a blog article I wrote, Are Christians Hypocrites, by asking whether I thought that “higher religious subscription correlated to fewer societal ills”. I think the answer is clearly, yes! (For a skeptic who agrees with me, see this dialogue on the podcast Unbelievable!)

But I know what he was getting at. Intermixed with that “progress” in the Western world are deep grains of corruption and evil in which the Church was not only complicit, but intimately involved.

My friend is a skeptic and an atheist. He believes that the world is better off without religion. He is critical of Christianity, and let’s face it: “the Church” has created its share of societal ills.

People are often critical of Christians and Christianity with some basis in fact for its checkered past. Christians often view that history differently than non-Christians, but a candid person must admit that corruption in “the church” evidenced in history is undeniable.

For skeptics, this vein of corruption running through the history of the Church”spoils the whole thing, undermines the truth of Christianity and justifies their rejection of it and the God Christians profess. The fact that popular history focuses on that corruption, to the exclusion of all the good that Christianity has brought to the world, doesn’t negate the fact that such corruption exists.

When my friend posed his loaded question to me, I suspect that he sees a correlation between religion and societal ills, and I can’t deny it.

But there is much more to the analysis. From my cursory perspective (I am no historical or ecclesiastical scholar), that corruption correlates strongly and directly with the “marriage” of church and state power. I think that Lord Acton was right when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the church becomes intertwined with kings and kingdoms, the influences of power, wealth and all that goes with it colors the church, and the church is inevitably corrupted by it.

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CS Lewis on the “True Myth”

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth. 

The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and allude to CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate. He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, that any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Paul the Apostle, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he debated in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address a Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5): “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28)

Paul used the quotation from Aratus that was spoken by a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) On the one hand, Paul connected with the people “where they were” using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul know enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

What CS Lewis says about myth is that it contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is just a shadow of the True Myth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

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